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VIU is starting to shut down some of its academic programs

The board of governors cancelled four academic programs last week
An aerial view of Vancouver Island University’s Nanaimo campus. VIA VANCOUVER ISLAND UNIVERSITY

Vancouver Island University is beginning to shut down some of its academic programs — and its music department could be hit next.

The board of governors cancelled four academic programs last week — including its two Geographic Information Systems offerings — in a narrow 5-4 vote that was broken by board acting chair George Anderson.

Geography department chair Michele Patterson declined to comment on the cancellation of the GIS program. “There is no next step for concerned faculty or departments to take,” Patterson said in an email. “Those who made that decision should have to defend it to the media.”

Michael Quinn, VIU provost and vice-president academic, said the university has been looking at delivery efficiency, student demand, and institutional alignment of its programs for the past year and has identified “a handful” that need to be cut.

The forecasted $150,000 deficit in the coming year was “a significant factor” in cancelling the GIS program, he said.

“We know we need to make some reductions and the GIS programming was one of those,” he said. “We’ve added a lot of programs to our calendar of offerings over the last decade, and during the time we were adding those programs, we weren’t removing any.”

Paul Zandbergen, a GIS professor at VIU, said the cancellation will mean that some students will not be able to complete their programs, and that no financial documentation was provided to either the senate or the board of governors before the program was cancelled.

Quinn said the decision for each cut takes a minimum of eight months and consultation on program cuts follows VIU’s processes and policies.

Elissa Miranda, a former VIU student union chair and recent graduate, said there are three ways that a program can be put up for cancellation at VIU, she said. “This is the sneakiest way to do it … the dean and the provost can make a decision without anybody in the actual program or the chair of the program being involved. They do their own research, they come to their own conclusion, and then they present that.”

Miranda, who works with the student union on governance issues, said that there is not enough information going out to the public. Students say they are only hearing about the program cuts through TikTok or news articles, she said. “Students are coming here and talking about different rumours that they’re hearing, different information they’ve been told,” she said.

VIU’s music programs — including its jazz diploma that was expected to re-start this fall — are being considered next.

The reasons cited for cancelling the programs primarily relate to enrolment concerns stretching back to 2012 and budget concerns around staffing, according to a memo from Quinn and Claire Grogan, VIU’s dean of arts and humanities.

On Thursday, the VIU senate voted 19-8, with one abstention, to move forward the proposal to cancel VIU’s music programs to the board of governors meeting on May 23, where the final decision will be made.

Sasha Koerbler, chair of the music department, said she is gearing up to fight for the programs in the coming weeks. To take music — a sign of civilized society for millennia — out of a university is to contradict the mission of scholarship itself, she said. Koerbler said the music department saw 147 students enter its programs in 2009.

But when the department was limited to an intake of 32 students after 2010, it was the beginning of a slow decline, she said. Today, only a handful students are studying for a bachelor of music after new enrolments were suspended in 2020. Most students expect to graduate in June.

A revival of VIU’s jazz diploma was supposed to happen this fall, Koerbler said.

“As much as we were grieving the loss of the degree, there was something to hang on to,” Koerbler said. “But the ground has shifted.”

Koerbler met VIU president Deborah Saucier and Quinn on Friday to advocate for the program. “I explained to them that I don’t see this decision as being logical,” she said. “Aside from us, there are 41 other department [programs] that have less than 19 applicants right now, and of those 41, there are 20 that have 10 or less applicants.” Koerbler said the jazz diploma currently has 19 applicants.

A campaign started by music faculty members a month ago has generated several hundred letters of support for the VIU music programs.

Letter writers and signatories included half a dozen Juno award winners, a former conductor and musical director at the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, and a number of regional music groups and associations.

A boat captain in Nanaimo wrote in a letter of support, as did a neuroscientist at Cambridge University who credited her career to skills she learned at VIU’s music program.

Koerbler said the wave of support has been touching and has given faculty the energy needed to finish out this semester’s teaching.

In a statement, VIU said it is making difficult decisions to be fiscally responsible with the funding it receives from taxpayers and student tuition fees.

Quinn said that student behaviours, needs, wants and budget conditions are changing in a rapidly shifting sector.

“We’re actively pursuing the best way to meet those needs.”

Last week, the VIU faculty association presented a $12-million budget-reduction plan that would not involve program cuts and faculty layoffs.

The association is also inviting eligible faculty to apply for administration-provided retirement incentives that go up to 36 weeks of pay. Only retirements that will lead to budget savings will be eligible for the incentive.

Quinn said he was not prepared to comment on the proposal.

The university is following a three-year plan that aims to bring it back to a balanced budget by the 2026-27 fiscal year. VIU emerged from the pandemic lockdowns with a multi-million-dollar deficit. Its 2024-25 budget, approved by its board of governors last week, is forecast to decrease its deficit to $8.9 million in the 2024-25 fiscal year, down from a $12.6-million estimate that was given out earlier this year.

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